Monday, August 1, 2011

Jacques Ellul, Propaganda, and the Technological Society

Here's a bit more fall-out from the discussion that went on over the Media Ecology Association listserv.  I've extracted my comments from the various exchanges that went on, and let them stand alone here.

It began with a discussion of Jacques Ellul.  I made the point that, as a Protestant theologian, Ellul was not opposed to literacy or print media.  He saw scripture as liberating, but also noted that literacy was an important part of 20th century modernization campaigns, and was needed in order to be able to deliver propaganda to the masses.  As a good media ecologist, he was able to see the benefits as well as the costs of print technology.

Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) was no fool!

Ellul argued that literacy and education make an individual vulnerable to propaganda, but that doesn't amount to a criticism of print as a medium, or of literacy.  He stresses this point because literate, well-educated people tend to think they're immune to propaganda, that it only affects the "ignorant" masses, and he wants us literate elites to know that the reverse is true.  Ellul argues that for propaganda to work, the messages have to reach their target, and in the modern world that largely requires literacy.  If you add Ong into the mix, then it follows that the fact that literacy fosters more abstract modes of thought than orality makes literates much more easily propagandized than nonliterates, and no doubt this is what McLuhan had in mind when he talked about literate vulnerability to propaganda (and this doesn't take into account rhetoric as an interface by which literates influence nonliterates, and the amplified possibilities that broadcasting present). 

But Ellul doesn't get into any of that.  For Ellul, it's all about "la technique", the supremacy of efficiency at the heart of the technological society, and how every institution is a part of it, how education and the arts function as sociological propaganda, and how the "current affairs man," the supposedly well-informed news junkie is the most propagandized individual of all.  For Ellul, it's modern communication and information technologies that are the key to propaganda, and as the digerati have succeeded the literati, it's the folks who are online all the time, keeping up with blogs and tweets and the like, who are the most open to propaganda.

Ellul argues that propaganda in a technological society uses all of the means of communication available in a totalizing and concerted fashion.  The only way to avoid being exposed to propaganda is to cut yourself off from the outside world.  Otherwise, access to information is openness to propaganda.  

Literacy and print may be necessary prerequisites for modern propaganda, but as Neil Postman points out in Technopoly, it's industrialism and Taylorism that are directly linked to the technological society.  Unlike Mumford, Ellul was not writing about the history of technology, he was critiquing contemporary society, and his focus was not on specific technologies, but on "la technique," the technological imperative, which is about efficiency over all else.  He identified this as a contemporary phenomenon.   

Again, Postman brought it down in levels of abstraction by referring to it as technopoly, the point at which we have surrendered culture entirely to technopoly.  This was preceded by a period of relative balance between technology and other cultural institutions, a period that Neil identified by the term technocracy.  And that period coincides with the age of typography.  To the extent that Ellul also made reference to historical change, he pointed to an earlier era in which religion held sway, and that of course was made possible by literacy.

Postman, in Technopoly, was presenting an Ellulian perspective.  But Mumford himself became more Ellulian in his postwar writings, especially in The Myth of the Machine.   I believe they all recognized that literacy and typography are necessary prerequisites for modern propaganda.  But necessary prerequisites are not the same as inherent characteristics.  Literacy and print are necessary prerequisites for modern science.  It doesn't follow that they are inherently scientific.  And since modern science is based on honest and open communication and publication, this would lead us into contradiction if these were inherent characteristics and propaganda's manipulative qualities were also inherent characteristics of print media.  But there is no contradiction when you understand that they make both deceptive propaganda and honest and open scientific exchange possible.

And again, in regard to religion, Ellul said that religious institutions in a technological society are turned into vehicles for propaganda, along with all other cultural institutions.  It's the equivalent to Gramsci's hegemony, except that there is no ideology involved, no class stratification or power differential, just the technical imperative given free reign.  And this is in contrast to an earlier era when all cultural institutions were subordinate to religion.  And as a theologian, Ellul also saw contemporary religious institutions, in the form of local congregations, as the main site of resistance to "la technique".  As a counterenvironment where we might try to find a way to hold on to or reclaim our humanity in a technological age.

At this point, I wrapped up my end of the argument, and concluded with the following observation:

In an article I wrote some time ago entitled "Post(modern)man" which is included in my recent book, On the Binding Biases of Time and Other Essays on General Semantics and Media Ecology, I discussed the fact that in Amusing Ourselves to Death, Postman wrote about how the image culture associated with television has supplanted the language-centered culture of the typographic era, how Postman was not so much concerned with the dichotomy between orality and literacy than he was with how the image was upsetting the balance between the two that had been achieved in the print era, leading to what Ellul referred to as the humiliation of the word.  

In a somewhat different vein, however, in Technopoly, Postman wrote about how technology had taken over the entirety of culture as we moved from technocracy to technopoly. And in "Post(modern)man" I tried to reconcile the two critiques by noting that the technological imperative, based on efficiency and manifesting in 19th century Taylorism, amounted to a triumph of quantitative analysis, a victory of numbers. What this means is that the postmodern condition is one in which the word, in both its oral and literate forms, is under assault from two different directions, two extremes, the hyperreality of the image, and the hyperrationalism of the number. And I characterized Postman as a defender of the word (which became the title of the essay I wrote shortly after Neil passed away, which is also included in On the Binding Biases of Time). 

Neil Postman (1931-2003) was the most, man!

Understanding Postman in this way also helps us to reconcile Ellul's argument in books such as The Technological Society, Propaganda, and The Humiliation of the Word.

Postman's defense of the word led him to recommend that we build a bridge to the 18th century, that is, to the Enlightenment. And what's significant about the Enlightenment is not only that it represent the full flowering of typographic culture, but also that it does not represent the descent into the inhumanity of industrialism. The Enlightenment precedes the Industrial Revolution, gives rise to it yes, you might say it's a necessary prerequisite, but this amounts to the kind of reversal or flip that McLuhan pointed to in his laws of media, the light of learning blotted out by the dark haze coming out of smokestacks, the cry for liberty drowned out by the noise of machines in factories, and the word obscured by figures in all their varieties. 

Neil Postman wasn't saying we should return to the 18th century, but that we should look back to it as the most recent time in our history when our media environment wasn't so terribly out of balance. and maybe this is also important as we consider the possibility that our new media might restore a measure of balance to our culture. 


Anonymous said...

Picture captions ftw

journeymanj said...

Well done Lance . Ellul could be expected to have much to say about the ineffectiveness of Aid and environmental activism in our day .Join me anytime on the subject at >
Ellul coined the now famous phrase " think global , act local" which goes to the heart of how holistic community development has worked throughout history .
More recently though, some people, think they can do better ("Think local , act global" ). I disagree . We outta press effectiveness before we succumb to mere efficiency arguments. We are surrounded with the debt and debris of quick fix.
Politics can look powerful ,but when its experimental and quickfiz, its on the road to deeper poverty . I'm especially suspicious when political activists use OUR money to experiment with intervention coercion and incentive when they have never tested the same with their own money . Aid programs are re-known for their predictably reactionary but politically correct CEO's agendas ( Change Everything Often ? ) this radical wekness of current aid programs is something Ellul predicted well in his book about the bigger problems our society are now facing